Monday, September 4, 2017

Uber/Grab Taxi Conversations

Sun Star Cebu (July 2017)
In Cebu, Philippines, I had very interesting conversations with Filipino drivers. Grab, a Singaporean company, competes with Uber. (As of July 2017, Lyft's international footprint is non-existent.) Grab's app is like Uber's but more intuitive. Grab users can message faster with drivers and can take advantage of a "notes" section when booking. I use the notes to tell the driver what I'm wearing ("red shirt, sunglasses, 6 ft," etc.). Interestingly, Grab uses Google Maps whereas Uber appears to use its own mapping system. (Update: in Indonesia, both Grab and Uber drivers do not trust any of the navigation apps and so rely on their own memories/knowledge or other people's directions. I'm not surprised--Google maps told my driver to turn into a one-way street several times.) 

Because Grab and Uber are fairly new entrants to countries outside North America, most drivers have worked for them less than a year. I heard two very interesting stories from Grab drivers I'd like to share and paraphrase:

Driver 1: Been working less than three months for Grab. Before, he worked in SEO. Speaks perfect English. Attended college but left with one semester to graduate. Why didn't he finish? He realized he didn't want to work in the profession. (In the Philippines, when you attend a college program, your final year consists of actual on-the-job experience.)

He's 37 but looks much younger. 

He's married to a Chinese woman. Much to my surprise and delight, Chinese women and Filipino men are becoming a more common pairing. If you don't already know, Filipinos do not generally like the Chinese--their cultures are completely different. In this case, the wife's entire family had college degrees, so they imposed a requirement on him to get a degree before he could join the family. I guess by the fourth year, the family realized the love was real and didn't need a piece of paper from an accredited college for verification. My Pinay friend, after hearing the story, remarked, "Ah, the Chinese."

He works about 14 hours more each week driving than in his SEO job but makes slightly less money. Why doesn't he go back to SEO? He controls his schedule as a Grab driver, and he can see his family more often.

Driver 2: Been working one month as a Grab driver. Before this, he supplied lechon (pork) to restaurants and restaurant suppliers. (Cebu is famous for two products: lechon and mangoes.) 

He owned his own business selling lechon. Why did he quit? He wasn't paid on time. Most customers would pay 50% up front and 50% when the lechon was sold. Enough people stiffed him that he's better off working as a Grab driver, where payment is guaranteed if the work is done.

Does he work more or less than before? He works more. He works from 6AM to 10PM, seven days a week(!). Getting paid timely is always a struggle as a small business anywhere, and I'm surprised no one has created an app that evaluates people and business's ability to pay suppliers and vendors. The app would be straightforward. Businesses and vendors would confirm when payment was made; whether it was timely; and if not, how many days late. The data would be used to create a "reputation" score for each business and vendor accepting products from suppliers. Over time, payments could be made directly into an escrow account handled by the app's company, creating a more accurate paper trail--and a very profitable, useful business. Why hasn't this app been created already?

The startup costs would force unprofitability for years, as the app's customer service reps mediated conflicting information about when payment was made. They would also need to identify forgeries and fakes, as well as build relationships with banks. With all the bad press banks have received, you'd think they'd be at the forefront of such small-business friendly apps. It tells you something about American capitalism that banks have invested so much in Fintech and online shopping but not in a version of the app I've just described.

Small businesses can benefit tremendously from technology and have benefited greatly as costs have declined. For example, savvy American business owners can use Intuit products to improve efficiency, avoiding expensive experts. Broadband access usually makes everything easier by leveling the playing field in terms of information access. Although Westlaw/Lexis and other accounts can be very expensive, they are still faster than having to go to a library and sift through hardcover volumes for hours to find what you need. Yet, somehow, in the year 2017, no one has figured out how to improve the basics--getting paid on time--for small businesses that lack a substantial online presence, a category that covers most small businesses in the world. What a shame. 

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